What Genetics Could Tell Us About How Cancer Develops

What happens when a precancerous growth turns from a benign cluster of abnormal cells to a full-blown disease? Researchers are turning to genome sequencing in an effort to find out.

Breast cancer cells. Image: National Cancer Institute

This month, the US National Cancer Institute funded a three-year pilot project that aims to develop a "pre-cancer genome atlas" for lung, breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer. Researchers will sequence the DNA from precancerous growths, along with RNA from individual tumour cells. The idea is to provide snapshots of the same tumour over time, hopefully identifying the tipping point at which its cells become cancerous. The results of the work could one day help researchers know which tumours to treat, and how.

The NCI project, which is part of the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, is not the first research to home-in on this stage in the development of cancer. Last week, three non-profits - Stand Up To Cancer, the American Lung Association and LUNGevity - announced a new four-year, $US5 million ($6.5 million) effort to sequence the DNA from precancerous growths in the body's airway, tracking changes in them over time. The project hopes to come up with new diagnostic tools to identify whether lung abnormalities found on chest imaging are cancerous as early as possible.

At this point, little is still known about what happens in the early stages of a disease that pushes a growth over the edge to become cancer. At the same time, advancements in DNA sequencing mean that with tiny tissue samples taken from patients, researchers may gain useful data that can shed light on those early stages of disease. And the earlier cancer is identified, the more hope there is that doctors may be able to treat it.


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